Climate Chronograph / Eric Jensen and Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

The winner of the Memorials for the Future competition, which was sponsored by the National Park Service, Van Alen Institute, and others, offers a depressing vision: a monument to our collective failure to stave off climate change. Climate Chronograph by Erik Jensen, Assoc. ASLA, and Rebecca Sunter, Assoc. ASLA, of Azimuth Land Craft, envisions a living landscape in East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. that slowly dies as water levels rise. The landscape is the canary in the coal mine. Here, the canary educates the public, slowly, over the decades, about what happens to our landscapes when carbon dioxide pollution warms the planet.

The designers are inspired by the Egyptian nilometer, which was “both a temple to the sacred indeterminacy of water and a meter for predicting seasonal flood potentials of the Nile River.” Only priests in ancient Egypt could use this sacred tool because its forecasts were so critical. “The prosperity of the kingdom hinged upon a few cubits of river height: a mere 18 inches could mean the difference between famine, abundance, or disaster.”

Egyptian Nilometer / David Roberts Egyptian Nilometer / David Roberts

Jensen and Sunter’s memorial would function as the nilometer of climate change. They see an opportunity to send their message, in landscape form, in East Potomac Park, where deferred maintenance has left the sea walls in near ruins. Millions are needed to rebuild the walls, but “funding and philosophical questions remain and no design or financing plans have been finalized.”

And instead of rebuilding, the space could just be opened up to sea level rise, becoming a “public record of rising sea levels, a living observatory for an emergent process. Nature will write our story, our choices, into the landscape as we face this most vulnerable moment.”

Their sad, brilliant idea subverts the iconic Washington, D.C. landscape — the jubilant groves of cherry trees. In their proposal, rows of them become soldiers, sent into a futile battle. “As waters rise, tides encroach on the land and the trees die in place, row by row, becoming bare-branched rampikes delineating shorelines past. With every fourth row of trees marking one foot of elevation, the composition becomes a processional tidal gauge—a record.”

Rows of Cherry Trees, Climate Chronograph / Rows of Cherry Trees, Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

Beyond the dying cherry trees, the rest of the memorial would help the public understand what it means to return to the tides. The memorial would cede control “to natural succession and decay.” Instead of beleaguered sea walls, the water edge would become a “fecund place for exploration, observation, and learning, sheltered cove for discovery and research of an emergent wetland ecosystem.”

Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

They ask for $2.5 million to build this. Artful, educational, and ecological transition appears to be far cheaper than rebuilding a seawall.

Also worth exploring are some of the findings the National Park Service and Van Alen Institute pulled out of their Memorials for the Future process. A few great ideas: create memorials with the public as well as for the public; and consider ephemeral, mobile, and temporary forms.